Op-ed | National security launch not ready to commit to commercial practices

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Launch providers should understand that mission success is not measured by the cost of adequate mission assurance, but the price of inadequate mission assurance.

You’ve heard the buzz surrounding the new space race and the growing convoy of commercial space companies that promise brilliant technologies and novel commercial processes at cutthroat prices.

Air Force Space Command (now Space Force) leaders have thought critically about how to leverage this race for national security interests.

I’m all in for commercial space success. My own space startup has small satellites on orbit providing a variety of functions, and we are taking advantage of DoD’s push for leveraging commercial success. But history and my experience suggest we are not quite ready to fully commit to commercial launch norms and practices to satisfy national security needs.

The push for new space ventures is not new. The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 was signed by President Ronald Reagan to facilitate the commercialization of space. The goal to lower costs for access to space has been similarly consistent across DoD, civil space and commercial industries. What has re-surfaced is the enthusiasm to adapt these commercial principles directly into the national security arena.

In the late 1980s, promising commercial space launch companies like Martin Marietta, General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas were promoting the reliability of commercial launch practices and alleging that the suffocating burden of government mission assurance requirements was the reason for expensive launch costs. After all, the commercial space sector was booming and clearly demonstrating that launch was possible without all that costly, unnecessary government oversight.

The Air Force responded and started to reduce oversight of these launch partners. A few years later, as the 30th Space Wing commander running the Western Test Range at Vandenberg Air Force Base, I watched as the National Reconnaissance Office lost a critical asset due to launch failure aboard a Titan 4 rocket in August 1993. Its cost was in the billions of dollars, but its loss to national security was immeasurable.

Additional launch failures of Atlas 1/Centaur in the early 1990s, then a series of five Titan 4 and Delta 3 failures in the late 1990s cost additional billions of dollars and devastating loss to national security. The ensuing DoD launch Broad Area Review galvanized a return to mission assurance.

The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) employed the recommendations of the review to return to the principles of mission assurance in the design of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which had been created in 1994. The result was 120 consecutive successful launches.

So what is mission assurance and why does it make such a difference?

Mission assurance is risk management: identification, quantification, and mitigation of the risks appropriate to the mission. SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson talks about taking “smart risks.” I agree with that. Opportunities for demonstrating commercial practices without the guidance of government oversight should be encouraged and better cultivated with lower cost payloads.

But national security space launch is a different breed. When assets are so critical they cannot be measured by insurance dollars, mission assurance is the first and last line of defense for assured access to space.

For the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Launch Service Procurement (LSP), I believe the Space Force must select partners where mission assurance is not perceived as an annoyance or tolerated burden, but prioritized with the gravity it deserves. Furthermore, the Space Force should select partners who have a business culture of commitment to the mission through a disciplined culture of mission assurance. This takes many forms, such as empowering front-line machinists to ask questions, instilling rigor in engineering analyses, promoting managers who act with transparency, hiring talent who are passionate about defending American freedoms, or aligning company investment with national security needs.

LSP providers should understand that mission success is not measured by the cost of adequate mission assurance, but the price of inadequate mission assurance.

I believe that commercial practices have a place in national security space launch driving innovation and affordability, and I applaud the DoD’s push to augment the use of commercial space. However, leveraging commercial practices must not exclude or degrade mission assurance, as history has amply demonstrated.

Mission assurance must remain the cornerstone for NSSL, and we should incorporate only commercial practices that improve it. DoD understands what outcomes are necessary for the critical LSP decision that lies ahead and will make the right decisions as commercial practices continue to mature.

Lance Lord is a retired U.S. Air Force general. He served the last four years of his military career as commander of Air Force Space Command. He is founder and chairman of L2 Aerospace LLC and a member of the board of Aerojet Rocketdyne.